One-and-a-half legs, three sets enough for Djokovic

Novak Djokovic dealt with two flesh and blood complications on Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night. One was his bothersome left hamstring, which continued to give him occasional obvious grief. He managed it with the tennis equivalent of a care plan, choosing his moments, limiting himself to certain shots and calling in the physios twice to check his bandaging.

The other was Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, a one-time great white hope and still a class player, still in the world’s top 30, but this night another box for Djokovic to tick. The result was easily anticipated. Dimitrov has beaten Djokovic only once in 12 meetings, and that was nearly 10 years ago.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia falls to the court during his third round match against Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria.Credit:AP

This night, he gave Djokovic a testing first set, obligingly fading away in the middle of the contest before rallying for a last hurrah that was entertaining for the crowd and in moments agonising for Djokovic, and stretched the match out to more than three hours, but was too late to divert its course. The score was 7-6 6-3 6-4.

Djokovic was interviewed on court after the match by Jelena Dokic, who did not ask him about his hamstring, leaving the crowd mystified. Evidently, the injury is the broadcaster’s no-go zone.

If anything, Dimitrov was too courtly for his own good, rarely choosing to run Djokovic around. It was as if he disdained to play Djokovic on handicap conditions. But it might simply have been that even in hobbles, Djokovic had more game than him. Beware the injured golfer, they say. Beware the pained Djokovic might become the motto of this tournament.

Whatever was holding Djokovic together worked swimmingly to begin. He broke Dimitrov in the first game and assumed control. He appeared to pass two early tests of his hamstring. He made to run down a drop shot, then pulled up, as if remembering the care plan.

But he chased another ball so far out of the court that he had to return it around the net post. It was a winner. Djokovic was in such apparent good spirits that when Dimitrov did him with a blazing off backhand, he gave his opponent a thumbs up. They go back a long way.

At the end of points, Djokovic occasionally hopped on his right foot to avoid stomping down on his left. He was beaten sometimes at the baseline, a rarity. Whether he wouldn’t or couldn’t chase, they amounted to the same thing, points lost. Of his trademark lateral split-legged slide, there was no sign; he would have to win this match by other means. He had plenty.

Trouble struck late in the first set when Djokovic half-slid twice for wide balls and after the second cried out. Favouring his left leg, he lost his serve, incurred a slow-play warning, and rode fluctuations in the tie-breaker. Looser shots emerged. Call them errors, call them symptoms, they were temporarily costly.

Somehow, Djokovic willed himself through two long rallies to win the last two points of the set. Upon tucking away the clinching volley, he stumbled to the court and sat there. A medical time-out ensued.

Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria waves as he leaves Rod Laver Arena.Credit:AP

Djokovic was ascendant again in the second set, save for a moment when he ranged wide pursuing a backhand in vain, pulled up, grimaced and momentarily adopted the gait of an old soldier. In play, though, he marched on.

The gears changed in the third set as Dimitrov went on the offensive and Djokovic manoeuvred to play his best tennis while staying out of trouble. It began with a flurry of syncopated service breaks. The raised tempo took a toll on Djokovic. He called in the physio again, then after a 20-shot rally buckled and ended up on the court again.

Another time, he lurched forward to a Dimitrov ball that was hovering over the net, pulled up as if reined in by a jockey and looked up at his box. For the first time, his face registered alarm. Dimitrov’s shot did not make it over the net anyway.

But he is Novak Djokovic, and at the Australian Open, that is enough. Prevailing in another 31-shot rally delivered him to match point and one was enough.

Talking to Dokic on court, his mood was playful. When Dokic characterised his next match against Australia’s last hope, Alex de Minaur, as a meeting of old and young, he replied: “What do you mean young? Thirty-five is the new 25.”

Dimitrov is one of tennis’s nearly men. When he emerged, he quickly picked up the moniker of Baby Fed. He loathed it, but took years to shake it. Like so many in his generation, he was defined in terms of who he was not, not quite.

He’s had an estimable career. He’s been as high as No 3 in the world, once won the ATP finals, made three major semis, stretched Rafael Nadal to five sets in one of them, in this tournament.

He prides himself on his fitness, and is resilient; no current player has played more majors in a row. But he’s now 28th in the rankings and 31 on the clock and it’s improbable that he will ever get to the place that has always seemed just around the corner.

Djokovic, four years his senior, remains today’s man. This was his 25th successive win at the Australian Open, equalling his own longest streak here. Another win will match Andre Agassi’s all-time open era record.

“I am worried,” he said about his hamstring after the previous round. “I have reason to be worried.”

Those still in his segment of the draw have more reason.

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